WHEN JILL Ellen Abramson was dismissed from her position as executive editor of The New York Times on May 14, it sent shock waves through the media world almost immediately, not least of all because of the wild divergence of opinion as to why it happened. The reasons for her dismissal from what’s rightly regarded as the pre-eminent post in American journalism were all over the place:
She was by turns brusque and passionate, abrasive and dedicated; she was cashiered for being a poor newsroom manager; she was let go because she had the nerve to seek parity of financial compensation with her predecessor, Bill Keller.
What was and is disturbingly revelatory, though, is how her ouster from The Times has cast a light on the emerging role of women in positions of power; how their ascension in the places that matter has rankled the status quo — and how, for women and minorities alike, that climb to power is complicated by almost interchangeable assumptions that have little or nothing to do with talent and everything to do with historical precedent.
It’s not just Jill Abramson, and it’s not just women. Intransigence in the halls of power is an equal opportunity experience.
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“Gotta love it when liberals get hoisted on their own petards. She should know by now that highly positioned progressives may bleat about equality, equal rights, etc. -- but when it comes to their own conduct, it is strictly do as I say, not as I do. Sounds like how the left reacted when Monica Lewinsky came forth -- every stereotypical name and sexist female cliché were trotted out.”
Gloria Steinem had a different perspective. “It's obvious it is a double standard — a huge, huge double standard,” said Steinem, a co-founder of the Women's Media Center, on the radio show produced by the Center. Steinem, the founder of Ms. Magazine, lamented newspaper editors’ central-casting emotional trait of being difficult, The New York Times' Abe Rosenthal as a case in point.
Steinem said that “people expect better behavior” from The Times. “[They] are going to engender much, much more anger and outrage and disappointment than other news organizations.”
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THIS OUTRAGE has a history that makes Steinem’s comments more than idle complaint. In 1972, Nan Robertson, one of the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters and author of “The Girls in the Balcony” (1992), mounted a class-action lawsuit against the paper for bias against its female employees, a suit settled favorably for the plaintiffs in 1978.
But Steinem made the implicit assumption that Rosenthal’s mercurial management style was somehow universally embraced at The Times just because he was a man — and it wasn’t. Rosenthal was disliked at the Gray Lady for being an equal opportunity shit disturber. This consistency with the in-house perception of Rosenthal’s management style undercuts Steinem’s claims of institutional sexism.
(And for all her problems with the late Rosenthal now, it’s been forgotten or certainly overlooked that, in June 1986, when The Times joined the modern world with acceptance of the honorific “Ms.,” Steinem herself brought flowers and a thank-you note to Rosenthal for making the change in Times editorial policy.)